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Women-Led Megaproject Looks To Make CRE History

The long-awaited 5M development in San Francisco that includes a 25-story office building and over 800 homes is not your average billion-dollar megaproject, Brookfield Properties Development Director Swathi Bonda says.

Instead, the San Francisco development is the result of what Bonda describes as a "consistent through line of women's leadership, from the point of starting entitlements, up until now." That makes it a stepping stone for the commercial real estate industry's push toward diversity, according to Bonda, who made the remarks while on a call with three of the other women leading it to fruition.

When completed, the project will be a rare example of an almost entirely female-driven megaproject completed in the primarily male-centric world of American CRE.

“If you think about the 5M project team itself, originally with Forest City, now with Brookfield, even though individual team members have fluctuated over time, there’s always been a consistent women’s presence really driving and shaping the project," she said.

Brookfield Properties Development Director Swathi Bonda, Brookfield Properties Community Engagement Manager Juslyn Manalo and Brookfield Properties Director Christie Donnelly in front of 415 Natoma, the office tower portion of 5M under construction.

Project plans for 5M, which has an estimated price tag of $1B, go back about a decade. Then-developer Forest City, which first applied for approval for the project in 2011, received it in 2015, but the project was delayed several more years by a lawsuit filed by neighbors concerned that its environmental review was inadequate.

Brookfield, which acquired Forest City in 2018, was allowed to move forward by a court of appeals decision in March 2019, and it did so that June.

Named for its location at Fifth and Mission streets, 5M will include over 600K SF of office and 800 homes. Brookfield said it expects the office portion, rising at 415 Natoma St. and part of the residential portion, at 434 Minna St., to be completed next year. A subsequent phase will involve a 400-unit condo building on Fifth Street to be developed by Hearst, the owner of the San Francisco Chronicle, which will have a public park added to the newspaper building roof at 901 Mission St. 

On-site, 5M will have about 90 units for households with incomes of between 100% and 150% of area median income, which in 2020 is between $89.7K and $128.1K. Off-site, Brookfield agreed to fund 71 units for households at no more than 50% of AMI and 83 units for low-income senior housing.

The female leadership steering 5M includes Bonda, who has overseen development of the project after its move to Brookfield Properties; Brookfield Properties Community Engagement Manager Juslyn Manalo; Alma Jauregui, associate principal at House & Robertson Architects, the executive architect for the office portion; and Sitelab urban studio principal Laura Crescimano, whose firm designed the master plan for the project.

But Bonda and other leaders shaping 5M are an anomaly.

For the last 15 years, the percentage of women in commercial real estate has not budged from 36%, according to the latest report from the Commercial Real Estate Women Network. The industry has also seen a lack of progress in C-suites, where only 9% of positions are held by women, and in compensation, where a fixed salary gap of 10.2% and commission and bonus gap of 55.9% exists between genders, according to CREW's report

Bonda, Crescimano and others say the level of female leadership on their team is a sign of where other professionals working in CRE hope the industry is heading.

From entitlements work through today, the project has been championed by women in power, including former District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim to KPF Associate Principal Molly Hare and Lisa Iwamoto of IwamotoScott Architecture. The project also has diverse leadership on the construction side, with Build Group Senior Project Manager Sarah Gillies as the lead project manager for 434 Minna St., which will have about 300 residences.

"Surrounding yourself with that network of people has been such an eye-opener, and it gives you that community to push forward and change things," Jauregui said. Part of that change has been Jauregui herself moving from Los Angeles in 2019 to lead House & Robertson's new S.F. office in a milestone for the company.

For Manalo, coming on as the developer's community engagement manager has meant helping bring new voices into the fold. She works with a community advisory committee that is almost all women, including Community Arts Stabilization Trust CEO Moy Eng and Misha Olivas of SoMa-based nonprofit United Playaz

“My experience with Brookfield, Forest City and the 5M team has really shown how development could be different as far as engaging with the local community," Manalo said. 

Both Bonda and Crescimano cited having diverse community voices incorporated into the project as a benefit to 5M's leadership and affecting its shape.

For one, the project has over an acre of open space, with all of its ground-level open space opening concurrently with the Minna residential building and office tower next year. In addition, much of the office building's lobby is public and will have open doors to Mary Court, the 26K SF of open space opening in 2021.

Both of those ideas were the product of conversations the women had about a common design goal, a process that sometimes flowed more smoothly because of their backgrounds.

“I think so many of us individually are used to walking into a room and having us be the only person like us, and I think with that, you really try to find ways to be able to open the door and to be able to build a connection for other people who feel that same way," Bonda said. "You really empathize with people who feel sidelined by development or feel like they’re not necessarily at the outset welcome in the room."

Bonda said that mindset affected the layout of the project, which, located in SoMa, had to account for the rapid change and threats of displacement in the neighborhood. To address enough of those concerns, 5M required a last-minute deal between Kim, then-Mayor Ed Lee and the developer that resulted in 40% of units being below market rate, at varying levels of affordability. 

"As opposed to like a who, what, where, when, how, we also have this idea of, who else, and who else can we extend opportunity to through this project to be able to make this a platform of change," Bonda said. 

Design aside, those involved and uninvolved with 5M stress the project's importance as a way to help move CRE forward. Having more representation from half the population has created better projects overall, they said.

“Women add a very unique perspective, so I think it’s obviously great to see Brookfield empowering women in the 5M project, which is a completely transformational project," said Kristin Molano, acquisitions and capital markets director for fellow prolific Bay Area developer Jay Paul Co.

When action is taken to include women, CRE will seem more open to different types of women, according to Bonda. "[There] isn't sort of a sense for more junior women to feel like they have to be a certain type of person, even if that's not who they are, in order to be successful," she said. 

Crescimano said more projects like 5M are able to empower underrepresented groups in CRE, but getting their participation will take a deliberate effort. 

“It takes proactivity," Crescimano said. "We each do something as individuals to invite others in and to look beyond people that are just like us."